Despite facing ongoing legal and moral troubles, Donald Trump’s vicelike grip on the Republican Party seems to grow ever stronger, not weaker, according to the polls. We look at the quandary this poses for Utah Republicans.
As of our deadline for this column, Trump was facing a possible indictment expected to be issued by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office having to do with $130,000 in hush money Trump’s attorney paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels in 2016. What impact will all of this have on Utah voters and Utah elected officials in the 2024 election?
Pignanelli: “The prosecutor in New York has done more to help Donald Trump get elected president than any single person in America today.” — Sen. Lindsey Graham
A politician is alleged to have paid hush money to an adult film star with whom he had an affair while his wife was pregnant. Normally, this would be a fatal obstacle to gaining traction among Utah voters. But these are not normal times.
Polls indicate that Utahns have a strained relationship with the former president. They support his policies and willingness to confront cultural issues. But doing so requires swallowing the bitter taste of his personal actions.
Even national critics of Trump agree the hush money allegations barely rise to any criminal conduct, justifying Trump’s claims of a partisan “witch hunt.” Indictments in the other jurisdictions pose greater potential problems for him. Thus, the pursuit of the former president for minor aberrations, by a liberal East Coast prosecutor, will likely compel defensive statements from the Utah GOP. Of course, a former president arrested, fingerprinted and subjected to a criminal proceeding is not helpful.
This dilemma will impact Republican officials who must articulate a message of sympathy for Trump without excusing his conduct. Yet, they must anticipate his predicted drag on the 2024 elections will not dissipate, as independent voters reject him.
The best strategy for Republicans is to ignore Trump’s candidacy while maintaining a disciplined, noninflammatory message that liberal prosecutors are wasting taxpayer dollars on grandstanding. Americans and Utahns desperately want the political discussion to move past the 2020 elections and return to “normal.”
Webb: When writing about Trump, I always note that I voted for him and I liked many of his policies and accomplishments. I also think he was treated very unfairly by most of the news media, Democrats and much of the big government establishment.
But Trump’s toxic personality, erratic behavior and deep character flaws have gotten worse, and disqualify him from winning the presidency again. He performed poorly in the last two elections and it’s entirely his own fault.
But many Republicans still love Trump for a variety of reasons. A big one is that liberal elites, including left-wing prosecutors, keep making a martyr out of him, which he, of course, loves. They launch half-baked, partisan investigations that produce more sympathy among Trump’s supporters. If you’re going to prosecute him, you’d better nail him, or he emerges stronger.
There’s little doubt that Trump had an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels. The payments to keep her quiet are not in dispute. But many legal experts say it will be difficult to convict Trump. Adultery is not a crime. In addition, the prosecutor is a left wing partisan who is going after Trump instead of focusing on street crime in New York City. Even a lot of Republicans who can’t stand Trump are saying the prosecution is politically motivated.
Most Utah GOP leaders aren’t saying much. Privately, most of them don’t like Trump and they believe he’s tearing apart the Republican Party. But they don’t want to alienate his many grassroots followers.
Even Trump’s most ardent supporters admit he has many flaws and quirks. Why do they continue to back him?
Pignanelli: Trump possesses some characteristics that charm many, including disrupting the status quo. His unabashed attacks on “The Establishment,” protecting domestic manufacturing against globalization, criticism of woke ideology and other such themes are popular. Especially appealing is how Trump’s unorthodox behavior attracts nontraditional newcomers (i.e. labor union members, persons of color, etc.) to the GOP tent.
Webb: Trump has become a messiah for many heartland Americans frustrated and angry toward establishment politicians, the liberal elite, big business, high tech firms, Hollywood and “woke” culture. Trump is boorish, dishonest, disloyal and otherwise outrageous, but he fulfills fantasies among people who feel ignored and alienated.
I really don’t blame heartland Americans. Many of these folks are my neighbors. They really believe Trump understands them and will fight for them.
I blame myself and my mainstream friends who have failed to help the Trump wing of the conservative cause understand they can have what they want — but they can’t get there with Trump. If Republicans were united, they could win elections, reduce regulations and cut the size, cost and intrusion of the massive federal bureaucracy; they could fight for families and traditional values and reduce the influence of liberal elites.
But Trump cannot deliver these things. He’s too flawed. He will just keep losing. Other candidates are just as committed and willing to fight as he is, but they’re not burdened with his baggage.
Will anti-Trump Republicans unite behind one candidate in 2024, or will multiple candidates split the vote, helping Trump win the GOP nomination?
Pignanelli: A year before the convention, the smartest prediction is Trump prevails through a messy primary process. This remains the outcome unless a contender who can unify the non-Trump factions becomes evident by the late fall.
Webb: I’m hopeful candidates with no chance to win will drop out early and get behind one solid, conservative, non-Trump candidate who might be able to unite Republicans, even the Trump base, in the general election. But that’s probably wishful thinking. Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: email@example.com.